by Montgomery Jones
I was sitting in the movie theatre 15 minutes before the previews even started the obnoxious commercials begin. I was irritated– I just wanted to see the film!–but seeing as I had nowhere else to go, I watched the “behind the scenes” footage of a show I’d been hearing a little bit about: The Fosters. It had premiered several weeks earlier on ABC Family, and I’d had no intention of watching it, but I was enthralled for the entire two and a half minutes. Gay mothers, interracial relationship, adopting children of different races, and addressing how messed up the American foster system is? Sign me up. When I got home from the movies, I watched four episodes on OnDemand back to back. I was hooked.
The Fosters could easily be cheesy. They could have over sexualized the mothers (as so much of Hollywood does with lesbian couples) but instead, couple Lena Adams and Stef Foster are portrayed as attentive and thoughtful as they raise their children—Brandon, Stef’s biological son; Jesus and Mariana, adopted twins; and Callie, the newest addition to the family, a 15 year old girl who has been bounced from home to home; and Jude, Callie’s biological brother who is sweet and kind.
The show opens when the twins’ former caseworker asks Lena and Stef to take Callie in temporarily after she gets in a brawl in juvie. To say the initial homecoming was tumultuous is an understatement. Callie, who appears so tough on the outside, excuses herself from the dinner table to cry alone in the bathroom. There is something about a young person who has been failed by the system that is supposed to protect her, breaking down in silence that makes the audience just hurt. Callie couldn’t be more isolated or more scared, but she is expected to smile and be thankful, because if she isn’t, she could be turned away from yet another home. Maia Mitchell, the actress, really made this scene have a pulse as she was so hard on the outside and wounded on the inside.
Once Callie reenters the kitchen and discovers she has two moms she says, “so, you’re dykes?” Her word choice is clearly painful for her new foster family, but Callie says them curiously, as if it were a simple question. Jesus, coming to his moms’ defense, replies that “they prefer the term people…but yeah, they’re gay.” Callie points to Brandon in effort to figure out the family relations and says, “and he’s the real son.” This exchange was pivotal for the show, and was done brilliantly. Callie’s ignorance about LGTBQ people and her own experiences with the foster care system put her outside the family dynamic immediately–she can’t even really see that there is one. What she says does not make her a bad person, even though it inadvertently offends everyone in the room. Between the suffering in silence Callie feels, the derogatory term for Lena and Stef, and the assumption that there is a difference between the children made for awkward silence. The show establishes that will be addressing major issues head on, and this is just the first ten minutes of the first episode!
From those first few minutes onward, the show continually breaks barriers and addresses a wide array of topics. The twins struggle with wanting to contact their birth mom, and Marianna specifically has a difficult time with her racial identity. Lena is biracial and understands what it is like to not feel racially accepted, so helps the twins track down their mom. So pause, do we actually have a show that addresses children being raised by adults of a different race? Is this show then explaining that being adopted in to a good household does not end in rainbows and lollipops? It’s astounding that a show with so much truthfulness is airing at such a pivotal point in history.
Lena’s own experiences with shadeism and racial identity also come up in the show: her mom, a dark skinned black woman, explains that Lena (who is half white and half black) had it “easier as a child than I ever did.” Lena responds that she never felt like she belonged with blacks or whites. It is an emotional and heated conversation, but one that personally resonates with me as I too am half black and half white. As a person of mixed race I understand what it is to not belong. I have frequently had conversations of race with my friends (of various races), many of whom express that they find lighter skin people to think they are better than the darker skinned people . It hurts me that there is this invisible divide amongst people of color, but I believe the first step to annihilating it is addressing the line in the first place and The Fosters is doing just that.
The Fosters is also up front about the abuses that many children in the foster system face. Toward the end of the season, it’s revealed that Callie was sexually molested by her ex foster brother, Liam, when he was 19 and she was 14. It is incredibly difficult for Callie to verbalize this. She attends a support group recommended by social services, where she meets Sarah, a 14 year old girl living in Callie’s former foster home and being raped by Liam. Callie realizes that Liam has manipulated Sarah as he did Callie a few years before. The Fosters convince Callie to go to the assistant district attorney so Liam will never do this again….and that’s where we come to the craziest but unfortunately realistic part of the story. The A.D.A. tells Callie that a jury won’t believe the sex was not consensual, especially with her “past” of fighting and running away. So, the A.D.A. suggests she testify that it was consensual, because at least then they can get him on child molestation. You could practically hear the audience’s gasp. Callie was not protected when she did what she was supposed to do: to come forward and tell the police. Instead, they suggest she lie, which she refuses to do in the end and Liam goes free.
This show is tackles a wide array of issues and taboos that other programs would never dare to talk about. That doesn’t mean it’s without it’s faults, but at the end of the day The Fosters are “non traditional” family trying to live a “traditional” life. Modern Family pushed the envelope as per what a modern family is. The Fosters ripped the envelope in half and set it on fire.